It was all about getting the voice right, said the translator of Confessions of an Italian. The opening chapter is a tour of the Castle of Fratta (“today no more than a pile of rubble from which the peasants gather stones to brace their mulberry trees”), in Venetian territory a bit north and a ways east of the city, by the boy who turns the spit in the kitchen. Chapters are long – 42 pages here – so there is room for a couple dozen characters, from the ancient Countess down to the old loyal servant now useless for anything except “grating the cheese. Down to “Marocco, the Captain’s dog,” actually, another resident of the kitchen. The friendly Penguin edition thankfully includes a Cast of Characters for reference.
As if all those characters, including several clergymen of various ranks, were not sufficient, it turns out that the narrator (and the author, Ippolito Nievo) is a fan of Tristram Shandy and has a tendency to wander. The seven page digression on the functioning of the Venetian legal system is the most surprising of them, and the dullest. Then it is, finally, back to the kitchen. There were points where I wondered if the narrator was ever going to get out of the kitchen.
He addresses the point in the first lines of the second chapter:
The principal effect of chapter one on my readers will most likely be a great curiosity to finally learn just who this Carlino is. In fact, it has been quite an accomplishment on my part – or maybe just simple fraud – to send you rambling through an entire chapter of my life, always nattering on about me, without first introducing myself. (Ch. 2, first lines, p. 45)
So Nievo is much more efficient than Sterne. It is only Chapter Two, and the memoirist is not only born but as old as eight or nine. If anything, the rambling, chaotic first chapter suggests Sterne much too strongly. Mostly the novel is more conventionally told than the first chapter suggests. Mostly Nievo and Carlino moves forward. “As I recall it aloud, I write what I recall,” Carlino says, and I believe him (Ch.6, 241). As when he describes his discovery and love of Dante – surely this is the author himself speaking without a mask – and ends by saying that “It is unfortunate, but we often have to put up with such digressions when someone is telling his story,” which leads to an amusing digression on clarity:
Courage, therefore: I criticize no one, but when you write, consider the fact that many are going to read you. (Ch. 10, 372-3)
Lucky for me, Carlino is wrong; I am read by few.
I also had the strange feeling in the early chapters of resemblances to later novels by writers that cannot possibly have known Nievo. The decaying castle at the end of its long history full of useless inhabitants evoked Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, if that novel were narrated by the kitchen boy Steerpike. There are several parallel characters. Odd.
One of those characters suggests even more novels. Confessions is built on a duel plot where one long line is Italian history, the futile struggle for independence, and the other is the kitchen boy’s ongoing love affair with his demonic cousin La Pisana. Ongoing for decades, so at points the novel resembles Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor and Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Those examples suggest a command of language and imagery which Nievo does not have, but there are – I need a vague word – resonances.
Tomorrow, let’s follow the loves of Carlino and La Pisana.